Curators in Context Response           Didactic             Andrew James Paterson



 In my PC’s thesaurus, the adjective “didactic” has two designated meanings. The first is educational and the second is moralizing.


“Didactic” was a recurring word throughout the CIC conference. On one level, this time-worn adjective refers to the educational realm of art exhibition and presentation. Visuals on display are generally accompanied by verbal description and explanation of various degrees of literalness, at various distances from the artworks themselves, etc. Catalogues, brochures, press releases, and curatorial statements can all be described “didactic”.


Stuart Reid of the Tom Thomson Gallery in Owen Sound and Jason St. Laurent of SAW Video are two curators particularly concerned with audience development for their respective centres in relation to immediate geographical communities and beyond. Both speak of the variety of educational or didactic material that curators should be responsible for creating and then disseminating. St. Laurent presents the seductive exterior of the exhibition brochure, noting that inside “we normally have a very accessible text describing the artist’s work and short biographies on the artist”, St. Laurent, “10 Easy Steps to Reaching New Audiences, CIC, Banff, 2005). He then explains how the brochures distributed in public spaces not necessarily frequented by art audiences or practitioners differ from those brochures distributed in more art-related venues, with the latter brochures containing inserted academic texts. St. Laurent acknowledges a difference between the gallery’s regular audience and its potential newer audiences, but the didactic materials he describes are educational with their relatively accessible language. Here is this or that exhibition, these are some of the works that you can come and see, here is an overall view of what these images and the exhibition. These didactic materials are promotional and not preachy in tone- they are about persuading but not about recruiting.


Stuart Reid, in his CIC paper “Re: Public_ Considering the Audience in Curatorial Practice“, argues on behalf of audiences as active players within the public museum structure. And this audience agency requires that curators act as links between institutions, artists, and audiences. Reid posits that “a museum can be a dynamic public space and a place where audiences come together for valuable exchanges and experiences around visual art, and the curator is in a very responsible and powerful position in this situation, sort of a catalyst in this chamber of elements and the curator always has opportunities….to choose the focus for the audience’s attention… “(Stuart Reid, Re: Public — Considering the Audience in Curatorial Practice, CIC, Banff, 2005) Reid’s belief in and commitment to audience agency is admirable — he believes audiences can be presented with didactic and educational materials and experience exhibitions as enriching endeavours or encounters. But there is a fine line between a curator choosing the focus for the audience’s attention and a curator insisting on a monolithic interpretation of the art on display — a curator subverting both audience and artists to an ideology. Reid is rightly concerned about getting more bodies into the galleries and museums — most of these institutions share these concerns, as do their funders. He and St. Laurent place promotional materials in circulation within their geographical communities, without falling into the trap of a condescending “outreach” initiative which targets specific audiences by means of unspoken and even spoken assumptions about tastes or political sympathies or other assumed alliances and opinions. Here there is a slippage between the educational and moral/ideological meanings of the word “didactic”.


The moralizing meaning of this adjective has, however, for a long time been a negative criticism of any exhibition or practice. Didactic art has long fallen out of favour in general art circles (it never was in favour in many art circles, although didacticism has been an accepted fact of life with regard to art arising from identity politics and unabashed political agendas). In a global, technocratic world, didacticism is not unlike nationalism or regionalism — it is simply too damn local. As didactic art has relatively disappeared from the radar, didactic curation has followed. Presenting curators at the CIC either criticized high-profile exhibitions as being too didactic (Ivan Jurakic refers to critiques he and others had read in Jens Hoffmann’s project The Next Documenta Should Be Curated by an Artist - 1993) or critiqued their own earliest curated exhibitions as being too “didactic“. Corrina Ghaznavi, in her CIC paper “Thinking Through Curating, reassesses her earlier curatorial projects as being “a little didactic and, the way one is, perhaps, with earlier work, I feel a little embarrassed about the didactic aspect of them” (Corrina Ghaznavi, CIC, Banff, 2005). Ghaznavi describes her earliest curatorial projects as being “body driven“— her body connects her to everything else. This body-based subjectivity meshed with her training and education in art history, so Ghaznavi describes how she entered into curation through dialogue between her own subjectivity and the broader discourses of art history.


Here, didactic and didacticism seem to be referring to a dated subjectivity — an insistence on corporal presence which denies reflective space to other bodies, such as audiences and viewers. A common criticism of eighties and early nineties identity-issued art is that it preached to the converted, that it permitted no resonance or reflexivity for those wishing to spend time with the works in question and assess the works for themselves — in short, these works were propaganda and not art. They were propaganda because they were didactic, in the moral (or politically correct) meaning of that loaded adjective. And they failed as works of art (in fairness, there has always been “political” or didactic art which has no interest in being swallowed up by institutionalized art systems with their masked surfaces of apolitical neutrality), because they failed to provide space for audience agency. Moralistic didactic curation disrespects audiences, and is therefore seriously out of step with the art world of the twenty-first century, in which rabid ideologies are hopelessly local concerns in a milieu of globalist technologies and relational aesthetics.